What Morocco Taught Me About America
Words and Photos by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank
Getting into the taxi, I didn’t expect another conversation about Donald Trump. I had just arrived in Casablanca by train and was running late — as I usually was in Morocco — for an interview with a political cartoonist I was profiling.
I quickly hailed one of the city’s ubiquitous red taxis and greeted the driver and front passenger (taxi sharing is common in Morocco) in Arabic. I gave the driver directions in a mix of broken Arabic and French. The man in the front seat, who was wearing a suit and looked to be in his 40s, asked me if I was French.
“Non, je suis americaine,” I responded. “American,” he responded in perfect English. But instead of asking if I knew a distant cousin who lived somewhere in the Midwest or relaying some other connection he had to my home country — like most Moroccans did after they found out I was American — the passenger told me about his diplomatic trips to the United States.
He asked what I was doing in Morocco, and I said I was a journalism student. The conversation inevitably turned to politics, and Trump. He wanted to know what I thought of him and if I thought he had any chance of winning the presidency. I’ll admit I did not stay neutral and was only beginning to express my frustrations about the Republican frontrunner when we arrived at his stop. But before he got out, he had something to tell me.
“You must know that not all Muslims are bad,” he said before getting out of the cab. I gave an unconvincing response, trying to express sympathy for his fears and let him know that like many Americans, I believe that Muslims are friendly and peaceful. Still, I felt like I had disappointed him, someone who had experienced America firsthand.
This was not the only time I proved to be an unsuccessful ambassador for my country. I lived in Morocco, a predominantly Muslim country, from September to December 2015, during the rise of Trump. I remember early conversations with my Moroccan friends. All they knew about the elections was that Trump, who they had seen on television, and Hillary Clinton, the wife of Bill Clinton, were both candidates. We mostly laughed at how silly it was that a reality television star was running for president. None of us could have predicted his high numbers in the polls.
And none of us could have predicted Paris and its aftermath.
When I learned about the November terrorist attacks in the French capital, I was visiting a group of my American friends who were living in Casablanca. A few of us had just had dinner at a new sushi restaurant. We were stuffed because the owner, after finding out we were American, gave us bowls of miso, extra sushi, and dessert for free. While walking to a taxi stop, I got a message from my dad. He wrote something along the lines of “Terrorist attack in Paris. Many dead. Be safe.” Back at their apartment, we crowded around the TV on our phones and computers and watched the body count rise while drinking cheap Moroccan wine.
The next day, we continued with our plan to visit the Hassan II Mosque, the third largest mosque in the world and the largest in Africa. Framed by the Atlantic Ocean, the structure was intimidating, calm, and beautiful, all at the same time. Children dived into the crashing waves as tourists took photos and Moroccans entered to pray. Even though I had heard it a million times before, the mosque was a reminder that Islam is a religion of peace.
Reality hit when I went back home to the family I was living with in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. A few weeks earlier, I had started renting a room from Sanaa, a single mother and doctor. I had already spent long evenings laughing and bonding with her two daughters, Baraa, 21, and Ataa, 25, who were both born in France, but grew up in Morocco. When I returned, Baraa was in a frenzy. She was midway through getting a psychology degree from an online French college and was planning a trip to the country to take her exams. She and Sanaa were
worried that because one of the attackers was of Moroccan origin, she would be unable to travel to Europe. For the next few weeks, she went through countless interviews, unsure if she would be able to complete her schooling. When she found out she got a visa — for the country she was born in — we all said, “Hamdullah.” Praise god.
But these small triumphs were overshadowed by a growing Islamophobia that even in Morocco, I could feel. A few weeks later, in the heightened political climate following the attacks, Trump asked for a highly publicized halt on all Muslims coming into the United States. Many have talked about the social and political implications of such a policy, but few have explored how even suggesting institutionalized Islamophobia affects perceptions of the United States abroad.
Conversations with Moroccans like the man in the taxi became the norm. I had an almost identical conversation with a taxi driver in the northern city of Tangier. In broken English, he also felt persuaded to convince my parents, who were visiting, and me that he was not a terrorist. The only thing I could think to say was “I believe you.” I don’t know if it meant anything.
Worse was learning about the struggles of my Moroccan friends. As an American, you can come to Morocco without a visa and stay for 60 days. For Moroccans, coming to America involves a long and complicated visa process that is increasingly unlikely to be successful. My friend Soukaina (who goes by “Sue”) dresses like an American Apparel model and speaks English with a slight Valley Girl accent. Her older sister lives in Florida and is married to an American. Sue was excited about getting to visit the United States, a country she has only experienced through pop culture and American students like me. But one day, she told me her visa request was denied because she was asked for financial forms she hadn’t been told she needed. But Sue is still hopeful that she will get to travel to the U.S. and visit the sister she hasn’t seen in years.
This is a narrative I heard over and over again. I grew sick of having to apologize for the words of bigoted politicians and for a country of immigrants that refused to let certain people in. When foreigners are unable to travel to a country, their view of it is shaped only by snippets of news, television shows, and songs. It’s hard to prove to someone that Americans aren’t Islamophobic when that’s the only image of the country they have. But worse, I grew sick of the privilege my American passport gave me. My Moroccan friends envied my status. I could be a global citizen. I could travel around the world and learn. While I knew Muslims weren’t bad people before I came to Morocco, the friendliness I experienced on a daily basis was in large part due to Islam’s focus on community, hospitality, and family, whether that was by blood or not.
One such moment occurred when my parents and I visited the pottery shop of an American friend’s Moroccan husband, Khalid. They had met and gotten married when she worked in Morocco as a volunteer. Now, they were going through the arduous process of getting him a visa. His modest shop filled with colorful, handmade dishware was nestled in the historic medina of Essaouira, a coastal town that was the inspiration for Jimmy Hendrix’s “Castles in the Sand.”
Khalid told us that since a recent terrorist cell was busted, tourism, and consequently business, had been down. We picked out a stack of bowls, plates, and tagines, not only to support him, but also because the pieces were beautifully crafted. He made us pay barely half of what it should have cost because it was “a gift for friends.” While carefully wrapping the pieces in newspaper, he told us about his dream of going to the United States to be with his wife. In between sentences, he repeated “Insha’Allah,” an Arabic expression meaning “God willing.” It’s a phrase often used in Morocco when the desired outcome is next to impossible.
It was with a sunken feeling that we left Khalid with his pottery packed into an overhead bin on an international flight. I wondered why Trump didn’t want my Moroccan friends to have the opportunity to study in the United States, to visit family they hadn’t seen in years, or to reunite with their spouses. It goes without saying these aren’t terrorists. A few wouldn’t even define themselves as Muslims. But for a large part of America, they could never escape this identity.
The most incredible part was that they still wanted to travel to the United States. Despite the image of bigotry and hatred that is quickly coming to define the U.S. for an international audience, my friends and many other Moroccans still want to travel here. They somehow still see it as a place where anyone can achieve anything if they try hard enough. It’s an idealized vision, but I wish I still had their optimism. Given the current political and social climate in my country, I can’t help but feel pessimistic.
But there are moments of hope. I recently learned Khalid got his visa and is now in Portland with his wife. It is unclear if he can complete the path to citizenship or if he will be forced to return to Morocco. But for now, he is American. And I hope he feels welcomed.